Friday, April 28, 2006

The End of an Era

The AP's Peter Yost reports that the last of the independent counsels must close up shop by May 3, ending a long and virtually useless era that provided another proof that efforts to "reform" politics oftentimes do nothing or simply make things worse.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Liberal Bias at Wikipedia?

Does Wikipedia, the online community encyclopedia that anyone can edit, have a liberal political bias? Over at PBS's MediaShift blog, Mark Glaser hosts a fascinating debate on the subject between Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Olbermann Watch blogger Robert Cox.

The discussion revolves around Cox's attempts to edit Wikipedia's entry on MSNBC host Keith Olbermann to make it more politically neutral (a stated goal of the site) and to include facts that were left out. Cox contends that his changes were continually discarded by fans of Olbermann who monitor the article, seeking to ensure that it reflects their liberal views, something he believes has happened to Wikipedia articles about partial-birth abortion, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

After going back and forth in an editing war, Cox was ultimately banned from changing the Olberman entry for 24 hours. Wales claims Cox was not treated unfairly and pointed out that he once again has the ability to edit the page. He next goes on to explain some of the safeguards that Wikipedia places on articles on controversial subjects. Cox, in turn, wonders about how practical the community encyclopedia can be as a reference, especially since Wales and others freely admit that Wikipedia's English membership is "slightly more liberal than the U.S. population on average" given that many people in countries politically further to the left of this one also speak English.

Unresolved in the debate: Can objectivity or neutrality even be possible in a world where political differences can be enormous? Is there more than one standard for objectivity? Can articles that any person is able to edit be reliable?

Unasked questions: If political neutrality is impossible, wouldn't it be better for aggrieved people (for any reason) to start up their own community encyclopedias? How can Wikipedia stop a group of determined individuals who monitor an article with the intent of skewing it to fit their opinions?

Friday, April 21, 2006

Computer Programs that Create Computer Programs

Popular Science has a story on the first steps toward biological computing. Not the biotech kind, but rather getting non-destructive computer programs to adapt to input and create new routines to solve problems.
As a high-school student in the 1950s, John Koza yearned for a personal computer. That was a tall order back then, as mass-produced data processors such as the IBM 704 were mainframes several times the size of his bedroom. So the cocksure young man went rummaging for broken jukeboxes and pinball machines, repurposing relays and switches and lightbulbs to make a computer of his own design.

Within certain parameters, his computer was a success, flawlessly reckoning the day of the week whenever he dialed in a calendar date, but the hardwiring made it useless for anything else. Koza’s first invention was not about to supplant IBM, but the mothballed gizmo remains in his basement to this day, a reminder to himself that the intelligence of a machine is a matter of adaptability as much as accuracy.

Over the past several decades, Koza has internalized that lesson as deeply as any computer scientist alive and, arguably, made more of the insight than any coder in history. Now 62 and an adjunct professor at Stanford University, Koza is the inventor of genetic programming, a revolutionary approach to artificial intelligence (AI) capable of solving complex engineering problems with virtually no human guidance. Koza’s 1,000 networked computers don’t just follow a preordained routine. They create, growing new and unexpected designs out of the most basic code. They are computers that innovate, that find solutions not only equal to but better than the best work of expert humans. His “invention machine,” as he likes to call it, has even earned a U.S. patent for developing a system to make factories more efficient, one of the first intellectual-property protections ever granted to a nonhuman designer.

Yet as impressive as these creations may be, none are half as significant as the machine’s method: Darwinian evolution, the process of natural selection. Over and over, bits of computer code are, essentially, procreating. And over the course of hundreds or thousands of generations, that code evolves into offspring so well-adapted for its designated job that it is demonstrably superior to anything we can imagine. The age of creative machines has arrived. And its prophet is John Koza.